The significant and sustained growth of the audiobook category, led by digital downloads, has been a familiar headline for a few years now. According to the most recent data from the Association of American Publishers’s StatShot program, sales of downloaded audio through the first three quarters of 2016 grew 29.6% compared to the same period in 2015, and in November 2016 sales of digital audiobooks were up 47.2% over the previous November. The Audio Publishers Association is awaiting the compiled results of its latest consumer and sales surveys, which are due to be released next month. But the 2015 APA findings showed audiobook sales were 20.7% higher than in the previous year, part of a string of year-to-year increases since 2011.
As the demand for, and supply of, audio content increases, so too does the workload of the people producing and marketing that content. How have audio departments been meeting that challenge? PW spoke with audio publishers at several of the larger traditional publishing houses to see how staff size and responsibilities have been evolving.
For audio publishers across the board, the growing popularity of digital downloads has sparked a sharp increase in title output and variety. But surprisingly, most companies report that head counts have not necessarily reflected that same uptick.
Anthony Goff, senior v-p of content development and audio publisher at Hachette Book Group, notes: “Things have changed dramatically: we are producing so many more books and so many more kinds of books. Our staff, however has stayed relatively the same.” Goff’s team of 12 will be producing more than 700 titles this year. “When I started here in 2003, we were doing somewhere in the range of 50 to 75 titles a year,” he says.
Hachette has two recording studios and is currently adding a smaller studio in-house. “We’ve picked up a new engineer, and we picked up a producer,” Goff says. “So we’re growing and our staff is growing, but not nearly as much as the title count and the workload, and so everyone is full-on sprinting to make things happen. And it’s really exciting, but you always hope that things don’t fall through the cracks because you have so many things going, so many balls in the air.”
The situation is similar at Simon & Schuster Audio. “We’ve basically tripled the number of titles we publish from four or five years ago,” says president and publisher Chris Lynch. “So as a group, we’ve had to take a hard look at how we do our jobs. We’ve added a couple of production positions to help absorb the increase in titles, but that’s really it in terms of new people.”
Other publishers are responding to the ramp-up in projects by increasing their staff numbers. Amanda D’Acierno, senior v-p and publisher at Penguin Random House Audio, summed up her division’s growth spurt: “In response to the increased demand for audiobooks, our goal is to produce every Penguin Random House title suitable for recording,” she says. “That translates to a 20% increase in our list over last year. After increasing our studio space in both L.A. and New York in late 2014, we’re again expanding our studios here in New York and have hired additional production and operations staff to ensure we have ample resources to produce more than 900 titles this year.”
Macmillan Audio is looking at an equally robust picture. “We have grown in the number of people, and we’re actually planning to grow again, which is very exciting,” says Mary Beth Roche, president and publisher of Macmillan Audio. “There are 13 of us and I would say by the beginning of summer there will be 16 dedicated solely to audio. The hard part, then, is figuring out where you need the additional resources. If you’re adding more titles, where are the pain points going to be? I’m looking at production, marketing, design, as well as the people who are managing the metadata and making sure that all of that is being optimized.”
In step with the other major publishers we spoke with, Macmillan has an in-house studio. “It’s been fully operational now for a little over a year, and it’s been a huge success,” Roche says. “We’re able to keep it very busy and we use it both for authors and for local talent to come in an use the space here.”
And when it’s warranted by staff, space, or time limitations, most audio publishers have long worked with trusted partners. “We’ve always used a wide array of outside sound engineers and people who do a whole variety of tasks,” says Roche. But, she explains, the completion of all the elements of the recording is still done at Macmillan.
Goff says: “We’re using not only our additional staff but outside firms to help take on some of the production work. We’re recording all over the country simultaneously now, using different partners, different vendors, and employing as many people as we can to keep growing the audio list.”
Audio Leads with Synergy, Innovation
Logic dictates that, as audio departments are producing more titles, they are in turn doing more marketing. And bringing digital titles to market has been a largely digital endeavor.
“Digital marketing has been a real focus,” says S&S’s Lynch. “Social media and email marketing have been at the forefront of our efforts the last couple of years.”
Goff says that at Hachette, “our marketing for the past few years has been focused on all the things you can do while you’re engaged with this type of content.” He adds, “Everybody’s busier and has less time in their day.”
To Goff’s point, Roche cited several examples of her group’s marketing campaigns targeting a now-larger pool of multitasking listeners. Efforts have included a promotion with the Avis rental-car company’s business customers, sponsoring foot races to appeal to those who listen while they run, and working with food companies to do sponsorships and promotions for people who listen while they’re cooking. “These are not things we haven’t done before,” she says. “We’re just doing them in new ways.”
But one of the biggest recent changes for audio departments is where and when they begin planning their marketing campaigns. “At Macmillan we’ve been involved from the very beginning on a lot of projects, and certainly on all the major acquisitions, we’re part of the very early P&L [profit and loss sheet] acquisitions process,” says Roche. “As audio has gotten bigger and bigger, it’s now included from the very beginning on even more books, going deeper and broader. Often we’ll meet the author when they come in even before the book is signed up. Audio is fully integrated into planning from very first launch meeting for the book and audiobook publication—all of that synergy is being optimized.”
Lynch also offers a positive assessment of the corporate synergy his team has participated in. “As a company, Simon & Schuster has done a tremendous job in integrating audio into the marketing and publicity plans for each publication,” he says. “But the key within the division has been thinking digital first, and making sure that we aren’t continuing to do things just because that’s the way we’ve always done them. If something’s not moving the needle in terms of sales or publicity or faster and better productions, we shouldn’t be doing it.” S&S has another advantage when considering corporate strategies and partnerships, says Lynch. “We also have the benefit of being part of a major media company, CBS.”
The use of audio and video is not merely restricted to presenting book content; they’re also increasingly being used in marketing. In Roche’s assessment, marketing people see audio as providing them with more assets to work with. “Audio has gotten sexy,” she says. “We’ll have an author in, and I can’t tell you the number of times the marketers ask, ‘While the author’s in the studio, can you have him read a 30-second spot for this?’ ”
Video is another medium in the synergistic marketing toolbox. “We’re recording video from almost every production that the author will put on their Facebook page, or that will go on the book’s landing page,” Roche explains. “We’re creating assets that obviously help sell the audio but also help sell the book.” She notes that her team has a good working relationship with Macmillan’s e-book division, a set-up that provides opportunities for the groups to exchange knowledge and support.
Roche also oversees Macmillan’s podcast division. Podcasts are a growing format that she says are another source of in-house advertising and another way to create more listeners. “I think podcasts are helping,” she says. “A lot of people who hadn’t previously listened to audiobooks maybe have gotten turned on to listening because of podcasts, and audiobooks are maybe the next thing for them to try once they’ve gotten used to long-form listening again.”
Hachette’s Content Development
In addition to trying to reach various benchmarks of more, faster, or better, most audio publishers agree that in this age of digital proliferation they have more opportunities to create content and production or marketing techniques that are innovative. “We had always experimented, we would dip our toes into lots of waters, looking at new ways to sell audio, new channels, new partnerships,” Goff says. “We’ve really opened that up now.” In fact, it was that audio experimentation that was a factor in Goff’s being promoted last year by HBG CEO Michael Pietsch to lead a companywide strategic initiative from under the audio umbrella. According to Goff, the content development initiative’s mission is to find new ways to branch out in digital and in print to expand the readership and market of authors.
In that new capacity, Goff says that he was able to “hire somebody who was in a parallel universe doing similar business in the children’s division, Tina McIntyre.” He adds, “I asked her to join our team and now we’re doing this not only for audio, but for all the divisions.” McIntyre had previously worked in the Little, Brown Books for Young Readers group, where, as marketing director during the “Twilight years” of Stephenie Meyer’s bestselling vampire series, she says she created “a lot of interesting partnerships and content promotions and things that you would normally do free of charge, but we kind of thought we could probably be charging for some of these things.” She then moved into a business development/digital publishing hybrid role in the company. As for joining Goff’s team, McIntyre says, “Corporate thought it made sense to pair us up and see what we could do.” She was named senior executive of the content development team in March of last year.
The initiative is a good fit with the audio department for several reasons, in McIntyre’s view. “Audio has been doing derivative product in their own way,” she says. “So they’re familiar with the scrappiness involved with everyone rolling up their sleeves and pitching in to help. Everyone gets on board and helps us decide what to move forward with. The other part that’s nice about being absorbed in the audio team is that all the publishers are used to working with this division, so there’s an inherent trust and familiarity that’s already been built up, knowing that they produce these beautiful recordings of their books.”
“It’s not just audio anymore,” Goff stresses. “It’s also not about an audio bottom line vs. a print bottom line. We are now genuinely driving revenue to all of our divisions and working with their editors and their marketers, really intrinsically on a day-to-day basis: brainstorming original content, looking at distribution partnerships, b-to-b, b-to-c, looking at all these different ways we could be selling our books and audiobooks, not only traditionally but with new content based on these writers and what they have in their stable. It could be stories they might have never published, or expanded character development. Or we may engage our authors in conversation about what else we can do to find younger listeners or new listeners.”
According to McIntyre, her first year in the new position has involved “a lot of testing of ideas and concepts: do consumers want chunked content? Do they want serialized content? What more could we do with audio? What kind of partnerships could we explore?” In the future, she notes, “my vision for the group is to be very experimental and innovative while 100% respecting the rights we have in our contracts—looking for authors and agents who are willing to maybe work with us on some of those new, innovative, experimental things, but never doing a rights grab, never trying to go and take a whole category away from an author that they might be able to exploit somewhere else.”
Among the group’s recent content development partnerships based in audio, Goff lists working with Booktrack, a technology company that creates and syncs movie-style soundtracks and ambient sound to e-books and audiobooks, and Novel Effect, a startup tech firm whose voice recognition technology allows readers to read aloud from a print book and have it automatically sync with music and effects. And last month Hachette embarked on a global partnership with online writing and reading community Wattpad to launch Hachette Audiobooks: Powered by Wattpad, which will publish 50 audiobook editions of Wattpad stories this summer.
Content development ideas reach beyond digital, too. “A lot of what we’re doing is not only digital but is really to sell physical and keep physical doing well, and to find new ways to for physical readers and physical audio purchasers to engage in different ways,” Goff says.
Hachette Book Group has demonstrated strong buy-in to the new initiative. Goff says that his team hosted a digital open house with all Hachette employees, and it was standing room only in a room with more than 100 chairs. “I was excited to see how enthused all of the staff was, how excited they are to want to be a part of the next generation of finding new readers and listeners and doing out-of-the-box experimentation,” Goff adds. “Because everybody’s engaged in different ways now—between social media, mobile devices, podcasts, people’s shorter attention spans, you have to try different things.”
The Next Wave
Goff says, “We’re constantly looking for new ways to get particularly younger audiences loving reading, loving listening.” He adds, “And, as we know about audio, once you get people excited about it, they are on board for life.”
At S&S, Lynch knows that flexibility is key for his team. “We need to stay nimble and stay creative in how we produce, publish and market our titles—from where and how we sell them to expanding the definition of what an audiobook is,” he says. “We’ve always published original or first-to-audio titles, but as the medium expands, we can push the envelope there too.”
Roche says she hopes for more rosy scenarios ahead: “We want to see [the audio segment] continuing to grow, and there’s still more audience to find. We’re not mature. There are still a lot of people who haven’t tried an audiobook, which makes the marketing piece of it still really fun. We’re not just fighting over a set group of listeners. It’s, ‘Listen to an audiobook and you’ll find one of ours.’ ”